Whether a horse is kept for business, pleasure, or a combination, every responsible equestrian wants to make sure that their horse is treated humanely. Sometimes, however, especially in the competition and show industry, the lines get a little blurred. A short while ago, we discussed some of the issues regarding “soring” in the gaited-horse industry and the dilemmas, both legal and ethical, posed by such a practice. Equestrian organizations that sponsor and run competitions and shows typically encourage humane treatment through rules and the imposition of penalties. No organization has been more vocal in this regard than the American Quarter Horse Association (AQHA). My guess is that most, if not all, of you reading this article are more than familiar with the AQHA. That being said, many of you are probably familiar with their most recent step toward aggressively protecting the welfare of horses that compete in their events. Specifically, their complete ban on the use of lip chains in Halter classes, which becomes effective on Jan. 1, 2016.
Those who participate in Halter are likely familiar with the use of lip chains. Advocates maintain that the proper use of a lip chain does not hurt the horse, but rather serves as something of a security blanket, giving the horse a sense of security and control. There is some evidence that the pressure applied by a lip chain actually releases endorphins that serve to calm the horse.
Still, the AQHA has had their eye on lip chain usage for quite some time. In 2012, the AQHA modified the rules to include stricter restrictions on the use of lip chains in halter, specifying the size dimension, length and type, along with details as to the correct placement (Rule 448(d)).
They also narrowed the classes in which horses could be shown with an allowed lip chain and imposed tougher restrictions as to the conduct and manner of usage (i.e. limiting the use of pressure and excessive jerking).
Along with these tighter rules came tougher fines and penalties for their violation. Some exhibitors balked at these restrictions, maintaining that they were too restrictive and imposed on the rights of the exhibitor for no good reason. Still, one might say that the writing was on the wall as far as the direction the AQHA was heading.
This past April, during its annual Convention, the AQHA took the final step and banned the use of lip chains altogether in halter classes. The ban takes effect Jan. 1, 2016. During the Convention, halter exhibitors lobbied strenuously in favor of continuing to allow the use of lip chains, and the Halter subcommittee strongly recommended stricter rules and tougher penalties for violators, rather than an outright ban. In the end, though, based upon input from the Animal Welfare Commission, the Show Committee and the Show Council, the AQHA Executive Committee denied all proposals and opted instead for an outright ban. AQHA president Dr. Glenn Blodgett pulled no punches in his reasoning, calling the practice “simply not humane” and opining that the “use of lip chains in Halter classes is not the intended use for lip chains,” especially when used by novice exhibitors.
As you might imagine, this decision by the AQHA has sparked much debate and division. Many proponents of lip chains feel that the AQHA has gone too far with this rule, unreasonably infringing upon the rights of exhibitors for no good cause. They maintain that, unlike the practice of soring, lip chains are not painful to the horse and, when used correctly, are not inhumane at all. Some argue that not using lip chains is actually a more inhumane practice as it subjects the horse to undue stress, removing the necessary sense of security and control provided by the lip chain in the unfamiliar and often-overwhelming environment of the arena. This can result in physical ailments, such as colic, and also poses a danger to those around the agitated horse. Others insist that the imposition of an outright ban is too severe, since most lip chain problems can be resolved with better education, closer monitoring, or the use of a “keeper”—a device that prevents the chain from being too tight or dropping into the horse’s mouth. Further, the ban on lip chains will likely have a chilling effect on the Halter industry, and will unfairly exclude those who want to safely show their horse but can’t do so without using a lip chain.
As the time of the imposition of the ban comes steadily closer, the uproar will likely continue to grow. In all probability some of these heated debates will find their way into the courtrooms, as legal implications abound. For instance, AQHA may face some challenges with regard to liability in the event of injury due to the ban on lip chains.
In particular, a horse that is overwhelmed can become dangerous and unpredictable. If the exhibitor loses control of the horse, anyone around him, including stewards, judges, and even spectators can suffer serious injury.
It is reasonably foreseeable that, at some point, a legal challenge will be made against the AQHA, alleging that its “unreasonable ban” on lip chains led to the injury. While it is true that the Equestrian Liability Laws generally in place afford some degree of immunity from suit, that protection is not absolute.
It is also foreseeable that challenges may be made to the severity of the penalties to be imposed by the AQHA for violations of their lip chain ban. When the ban goes into effect, so will stiffer penalties for what the AQHA considers “abuse and unsportsmanlike conduct.” These penalties include broader fine ranges and mandatory probation or Level 1 – 2nd offense or higher. Plus, fines and penalties will be cumulative and run consecutively in the event of multiple offenses. In addition, in this age of the internet, anyone with a penalty or even a “white card” warning will have their name and other information put into a publicly accessible database. This sort of internet-based “scarlet letter,” imposed even for something as polarizing as the use of lip chains, is bound to draw a few legal challenges. This is especially true given the fact that many exhibitors find the classification of lip chains as “abusive” to be unfair and unreasonable.
Other equestrian organizations are not readily following suit regarding the AQHA’s ban on the use of lip chains. Some have taken the exact opposite position. The Breeders Halter Futurity maintains that a ban on the use of lip chains would put the safety of exhibitors, judges, stewards and spectators at risk. Other recognized organizations within the equine industry, like the World Conformation Horse Association and the East Coast Halter Futurity, continue to allow lip chains, so long as exhibitors are monitored for proper usage and potential abuse. Currently, though, the WCHA is assessing AQHA’s decision to determine whether changes to their current rules would be appropriate.
The whole issue regarding the use of lip chains continues to develop, and it will be interesting to see what kind of legal implications arise once the ban goes into effect. Will it go the same way as “soring?” Or will a quiet revolution of exhibitors flouting the ban slowly make it obsolete? The road will likely take a path in between, but it certainly bears watching.
Mati Jarve is the managing partner of the Marlton, New Jersey law firm of Jarve Kaplan Granato, LLC. He is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a Civil Trial Attorney and theNational Board of Trial Attorneys as a Trial Advocate. Licensed in New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Arizona, he maintains a national practice in civil litigation, including equine related issues. This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice. If you have a specific legal question or problem you should consult with an experienced and knowledgeable equine law attorney. Questions, comments or suggestions can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org, by visiting www.nj-triallawyers.com.